There's lots of buzz about Farmhaus these days, and it seems ready to become this summer's Hot Spot, with Kevin Willman, formerly of Edwardsville's Erato, manning the helm and doing things in his own slightly idiosyncratic way. For instance, he recently took off a few days to go fishing, and just closed rather than delegating the weight of running a new high-expectation operation. But he caught some fish, and had them on the menu.. So there's a pleasing looseness to some aspects of things. Not the food, however. Willman's freshness-oriented kitchen with a busily changing menu provides equal pleasure on this side of the river.
The décor, for example, is not exactly loose, but pleasantly relaxed. The dining room displays some great old photos, and a landscape print that looks straight out of the Fifties. Each table sports a Mason jar holding, on our visit, a single calla lily, a wonderfully pristine combination. The restaurant is well lit, and with a fair amount of noise from diners, but the ambiance is casual and friendly.
We approached the menu as a collection of small plates. Treating them as first courses or appetizers results in generous servings. As traditional entrees, they are smaller, both in size and price, than St. Louis is accustomed to. Our grouper plate, at $15, was the second most expensive item on the menu; the highest was a 9-ounce beef filet at $34. This approach allows for tasting many different things, always fun.
We were thrilled with the mushroom salad, made with roasted Ozark Forest mushrooms, goat's milk cheese, excellent bacon lardons, un-wimpy greens and a warm vinaigrette made with the bacon. The roasted pecans garnishing the plate added their woodsy notes. It's the sort of dish we'd want to order on every subsequent visit. Pickled shrimp are not common in Midwestern farmhouses, but are a Southern party standard. Willman seems to like to pickle things, and alongside the tender shrimp, still tasting of themselves and not of just their marinade, came other vegetables like onion slices and zucchini, even tasty enough for He Who Doesn't Do Zucchini.
The sweet potato nachos seem to be a permanent fixture on the constantly evolving menu. Those expecting Mexican-style nachos will be disappointed. For the rest of us, they're a most satisfying combination of textures and flavors (sweet potatoes fry up to blend crunchy and chewy, and they sparkle with more bacon, which is housemade, by the way). Sprinkled with blue cheese from a Wisconsin cooperative of small producers and drizzled with a catsup made from sweet red peppers that have been fire-roasted, the flavors dance.
A more conservative eater might go for, and sing about, the slices of cold and tender rare roast beef, served with a truffle foam and some of the lavash that comes with many of the salads, all sitting on what the menu called horseradish panna cotta. We didn't get any horseradish, but truffle oil and whipped cream? Cures most ills.
The grouper, described as slow roasted, still had a crisp skin, and wasn't overcooked. Spoon bread, another Southern delight seldom seen hereabouts. Delicious and tender braised greens dressed with a ham-red wine reduction rode alongside. And a slice of bacon-wrapped meatloaf was first rate, meaty rather than the sort that's a tribute to breadcrumbs. It was somewhat dense, accompanied by a nicely cheesy macaroni and cheese and some gently cooked sweet onions.
Another plate, labeled on the menu simply as "breakfast" showed off housemade maple sausage links and a buttery poached farm egg (and the flavor difference in such eggs is remarkable), which were both good, plus roasted pork belly and some fat corn blini, little pancakes that didn't need syrup. And those two were delightful. Definitely a keeper for those of us who love morning food.
A raspberry tart led pastry chef KT Fitzgerald's dessert list. It was simple, just a tasty tumble of red and black raspberries atop a creamy filling in a first-rate pastry crust. The pecan financier is an American take on a traditional French dessert made with ground almonds. It's very simple, tasting of honey and served with honey ice cream and a homemade graham cracker. The “cracker” is chewy rather than crisp, and rather thick, more of a cookie. A lemon pudding cake wasn't quite what the phrase evokes, but rather a square of moist cake, lightly lemony, with a scoop of basil ice cream alongside. Some grandmas made fried pies, and so does Fitzgerald, hers filled with strawberry and rhubarb, with some particularly good strawberry-creme fraiche ice cream.
The kitchen doesn't always get all of an order out at the same time, but that just seems to be part of the aura. But the servers are pleasant and alert, and on a busy weekend evening, Willman himself was occasionally seen serving a dish or busing a table
Folks also eat at the bar, which has its own room. There's fixed-price ($10) lunch service on weekdays, not from a menu but from a five-day rotation of blue plate specials, listed on the website. Farmhaus also is big on Twitter and Facebook, the latter including the daily menus. The wine list is limited, but inexpensive, with a couple of higher-end labels. The by-the-glass list could be longer, but we found some satisfactory choices.
We strongly recommend reservations, and patience in the process. We've twice had dinner-hour phone calls unanswered. Try lunchtime or mid-afternoon. Worth the effort, for sure.
3257 Ivanhoe Ave.
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner Wed.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: No